Tai chi may relieve knee pain

Tai chi, a martial art originated from China, is a mind and body practice in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Practitioners move their bodies slowly and artistically, while breathing deeply which is why it is sometimes referred to as “moving meditation”.

People practice tai chi for various health-related reasons including:

  • improve physical condition, muscle strength, coordination, and flexibility
  • benefits associated with low-impact, weight-bearing, aerobic exercise
  • improve balance and decrease the risk of falls, especially in elderly people
  • ease pain and stiffness—for example, from osteoarthritis
  • improve sleep
  • overall wellness.

A recent study suggests that practising tai chi regularly reduce osteoarthritis pain and also improve joint functions.

Researchers from the Tufts University School of Medicine carried out a study on 40 people with knee osteoarthritis, who had an average age of 65.

Twenty people were randomly placed in hour-long twice-weekly tai chi classes for three months. Besides tai chi movements, the classes included self-massage, breathing and relaxation techniques. They were also asked to practice tai chi for at least 20 minutes a day at home while maintaining their usual physical routine.

The other half was placed in the control group, attending twice-weekly hour-long sessions on osteoarthritis that included information on diet and nutrition, plus ways to treat the condition and how to handle stress. They also took part in full-body stretching exercises and were encouraged to stretch for 20 minutes a day at home and follow their regular physical regimen.

The Los Angeles Times reported that after the three months trial, those in the tai chi group saw a substantial drop in knee pain compared to the control group. The tai chi group also saw more improvements in function, depression and health status.

A second study by Australian researchers also found encouraging results. This study included 152 older adults with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip. The participants were randomly divided into three groups: tai chi classes, water exercise classes, or a waiting list. After 12 weeks, those in both the tai chi and water exercise groups reported moderate improvements in physical function, although only water exercise led to slightly decreased pain. The benefits were still evident three months after the classes ended.

Although tai chi is quite safe to practice, practitioners should observe the following:

  • do not overdo, as it may result in sore muscles or sprains
  • do not practice tai chi right after a meal, or when you are very tired, or if you have an infection
  • do not practice if you are pregnant, or if you have a hernia, joint problems, back pain, fractures, or severe osteoporosis.

The bottom line

Many people practice tai chi to improve their health. It is such a gentle form of exercise that tai chi is suitable to those with arthritis. Studies suggest that it may help reduce joint pain, stiffness, and disability for people with OA.

Tai chi requires strict attention to body posture and breathing, so it’s best learned from a qualified instructor rather than a book or video